Afghanistan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Afghanistan's political rights rating improved from 7 to 6 due to the holding of the Loya Jirga and the establishment of the Transitional Authority in June. Its civil liberties rating improved from 7 to 6 due to increased personal freedoms in some areas of the country.


After decades of violence, Afghanistan faced its first real hope for peace following the military defeat of the ultraconservative Taliban movement and the installation of an interim government in December 2001. Although Afghanistan's prospects continued to improve in 2002, the war-ravaged country remained wracked by severe food shortages, drought, and some armed conflict. President Hamid Karzai's Transitional Authority struggled to improve security outside of the capital and to curb the power of the regional warlords, while the slow disbursement of foreign aid hampered reconstruction efforts. Improvements in human rights, particularly in the areas of media freedom and personal autonomy, were tempered by reports of continuing violations of women's rights, violence against ethnic minorities, and serious security problems.

Located at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan has for centuries been caught in the middle of great power and regional rivalries. After besting Russia in a contest for influence in Afghanistan, Britain recognized the country as an independent monarchy in 1921. King Zahir Shah ruled from 1933 until he was deposed in a 1973 coup. Afghanistan has been in continuous civil conflict since 1978, when a Communist coup set out to transform this highly traditional society. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979, but faced fierce resistance from U.S.-backed mujahideen (guerrilla fighters) until troops finally withdrew in 1989.

The mujahideen factions overthrew the Communist government in 1992 and then battled each other for control of Kabul, killing more than 25,000 civilians in the capital by 1995. Consisting largely of students in Islamic schools, the Taliban militia entered the fray and seized control of Kabul in 1996. Defeating or buying off mujahideen commanders, the Taliban soon controlled most of the country except for parts of northern and central Afghanistan, which remained in the hands of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance coalition. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the Taliban's main supporters, while Iran, Russia, India, and Central Asian states backed the Northern Alliance.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States launched a military campaign in October 2001 aimed at toppling the Taliban regime and eliminating Saudi militant Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Qaeda. Simultaneously, Northern Alliance forces engaged the Taliban from the areas under their control. The Taliban crumbled quickly throughout the country, losing Kabul to Northern Alliance forces in November and surrendering the southern city of Kandahar, the movement's spiritual headquarters, in December.

As a result of the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, a broad-based, interim administration, which enjoyed the nominal support of Afghanistan's provincial governors, took office. It was led by Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai. The UN-brokered deal that put Karzai in office sought to balance demands for power by victorious Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara military commanders with the reality that many Pashtuns, who are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, would not trust a government headed by ethnic minorities. Karzai named 18 Northern Alliance officials to his 30-member cabinet, including military leader Mohammad Fahim as defense minister. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) began patrolling Kabul in December 2001, but security outside the capital remained tenuous in 2002. Throughout the rugged countryside, military commanders, tribal leaders, rogue warlords, and petty bandits continued to hold sway. Bolstered by arms, money, and political support from the United States and neighboring governments, many warlords maintained private armies and refused to obey the writ of the central administration. Cities were affected by a number of bombings, rocket attacks, and other sporadic violence by suspected Taliban sympathizers throughout the year. Two government ministers were assassinated, and Karzai himself survived an attempt on his life in September.

In June 2002, the formerly exiled King Zahir Shah convened a loya jirga, or traditional council of tribal elders and other notables, which appointed a Transitional Authority to rule Afghanistan for a further 18 to 24 months. Karzai won more than 80 percent of the delegates' votes to become president, decisively defeating two other candidates, including one woman. The Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance filled half of the cabinet positions, while the remainder were given to Pashtuns and representatives of other ethnic groups. In an attempt to curb the power of the regional warlords, President Karzai signed a decree in December banning political leaders from taking part in military activity.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

With the fall of the Taliban, residents of Kabul and most other cities were able to go about their daily lives with fewer social and religious restrictions, and were less likely to be subject to harassment from the authorities. However, the political rights and civil liberties of all Afghans remained severely circumscribed in 2002.

The interim administration appointed in December 2001 functioned as a central government, but its authority over areas outside Kabul remained limited. The loya jirga convened in June was charged with choosing a head of state and key ministers for the Transitional Authority, which was mandated to rule for up to 24 months while a new constitution was drawn up and elections scheduled for 2004 were organized. The majority of the delegates to the loya jirga were selected through a two-stage electoral process, but places were also reserved for women and refugees. While the United Nations declared that the delegates represented every region, ethnic group, educational level, and occupation, human rights groups charged that the delegate selection process was characterized by "widespread and systematic" manipulation and intimidation from local military commanders.

The loya jirga itself was marred by complaints of behind-the-scenes deals involving warlords, the United States, and the UN, which were said to have subverted the voting process. In addition, many delegates complained of threats by warlords and Islamic fundamentalists during the convening of the loya jirga, and about 70 walked out of the gathering to protest their lack of a free vote. While the vote on Karzai's presidency was held by secret ballot, later votes on the arrangement of the government and its key personnel were "highly irregular," according to a statement issued by Human Rights Watch.

Conditions for Afghanistan's media improved markedly in 2002. A new Press Law, adopted in February, guaranteed the right to press freedom. Authorities have granted more than 100 licenses to independent publications, although some regional warlords have refused to allow independent media in the areas under their control. Journalists in Kabul reported several instances of threats and harassment at the hands of authorities, according to the Index on Censorship. Many practice self-censorship or avoid writing about sensitive issues such as Islam, national unity, or crimes committed by the warlords. Television broadcasts were restored in January after a total ban under the Taliban. However, in August, officials in Kabul banned the airing of Indian films on TV and ruled that radio must not broadcast women singing.

For Muslim Afghans, the end of Taliban rule meant that they were no longer forced to adopt the movement's ultraconservative Islamic practices. Taliban militants required men to maintain beards of sufficient length, cover their heads, and pray five times daily, while women were subject to rigid strictures regarding appropriate dress and appearance in public. The minority Shia population has traditionally faced discrimination from the Sunni majority. While the new administration attempted to pursue a policy of greater religious tolerance, it remained subject to pressure from Islamic fundamentalist groups.

The Taliban's downfall meant that Afghans were generally able to speak more freely and openly in many areas of the country. They also were able to enjoy routine leisure activities banned by the Taliban, including listening to music, watching movies and television, and flying kites. Rights to assembly, association, and free speech were formally restored, but were applied erratically in different regions. For example, a Human Rights Watch report issued in November detailed numerous violations of these rights in the province of Herat. In November, after protests at Kabul University over poor living conditions, police forces fired on a peaceful student march, killing 3 students and wounding more than 20. According to Human Rights Watch, police also beat students at the university dormitory and threatened injured students at the hospital.

Throughout Afghanistan, new rulers faced the question of whether to bring to justice, take revenge on, or simply to ignore perpetrators of past abuses. During their rule, the Taliban detained and tortured thousands of Tajiks, Hazaras, and members of other ethnic minorities, some of whom were killed or disappeared. In October, mass graves, thought to contain the remains of ethnic Hazaras killed by the Taliban, were uncovered in northern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Northern Alliance commanders were criticized for the deaths of up to 1,000 Taliban soldiers captured during fighting in the fall of 2001.

Dealing with past abuses as well as protecting basic rights is particularly difficult in a country where courts are rudimentary and judges are easily pressured by those who enter the courtroom with guns. The Karzai administration intends to create an independent judiciary that would uphold Sharia (Islamic law), but progress on legal reform and training for judges remained slow. The Bonn Agreement established a national Human Rights Commission to monitor and investigate human rights conditions, but it does not yet have sufficient resources to effectively carry out its mandate. In some provinces, local warlords sanctioned widespread abuses by the police, military, and intelligence forces under their command, including politically motivated arrests, torture, and extortion.

Although the Bonn Agreement recognized the need to create a national army and a professional police force, little progress was made on unifying Afghanistan's various armed factions in 2002. Training programs for soldiers and police have thus far been limited to Kabul, and no credible demobilization or disarmament efforts were undertaken. Continuing rivalries between various warlords resulted in localized fighting that has killed dozens of civilians and displaced thousands from their homes. In northern Afghanistan, aid workers as well as ethnic Pashtuns were targets of the violence. The reluctance of the international community to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has meant that the security situation in much of the country remains extremely poor.

The end of Taliban rule freed women in Kabul and most other cities from harsh restrictions and punishments that had kept them veiled, isolated, and, in many cases, impoverished. Women's formal rights to education and employment were restored, and they were once again able to participate in public life. In a move long on symbolism, Karzai named two women to his interim cabinet in December 2001. Nearly 200 women participated in the loya jirga in June, and Sima Samar was elected as its deputy chairman, although she and other female delegates were subjected to threats from other participants. As a result of continued lawlessness and interethnic clashes, women continued to be subject to sexual violence. The Christian Science Monitor reported in August that since the Taliban's fall, dozens of women had attempted self-immolation to escape family problems or unwanted marriages. In certain areas, ruling warlords continued to impose Taliban-style behavioral restrictions on women. A report issued in December by Human Rights Watch detailed the increasing strictures imposed on women by Ismail Khan's administration in Herat, which include mandatory usage of the burqa, or head-to-toe covering; a ban on traveling with unrelated men; and gynecological examinations for women suspected of immodest behavior. While many children returned to school in 2002, a number of girls' schools were subject to arson and rocket attacks from Islamic fundamentalists during the year.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees returned to their homes during 2002, but at year's end as many as one million civilians remained displaced within the country, including up to 120,000 Pashtuns who had fled violence and ethnic discrimination in the north. By November, an estimated 1.7 million refugees had returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan, Iran and other countries, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, well over one million refugees remain in both Pakistan and Iran. Humanitarian agencies and Afghan authorities were ill-equipped to deal with the unexpected scale of the repatriation, while the poor security situation meant that many refugees were unable to return to their homes and instead congregated in and around major urban centers. In June, the UNHCR suspended returning refugees to parts of northern Afghanistan because of the continued fighting between different ethnic factions.